Formed after meeting at Toronto's Humber College's Music Performance programme in 2011, Matthew Tavares (keys), Chester Hansen (bass), Alex Sowinski (drums) and Leland Whitty (sax) initially attracted attention with their jazz interpretations of hip-hop tracks, leading them to work with artists such as Tyler, The Creator and Frank Ocean. They then took the music world by storm with their 2014 LP, III, a brash yet refined record of angular jazz improvisations, lush ballads, krautrock, and futuristic hip-hop-tinged rhythms which led to a couple of years touring the world and collaborating with some of the best and brightest artists around the globe, including a slot at 2014's Great Escape. Their most recent album, IV, features a collaboration with Future Islands' Samuel T. Herring, and they've just played at Glastonbury Festival, on the West Holts Stage.
Alex took some time out to have a chat with Brightonsfinest.
Where are you?
We're in Dublin. We have back-to-back shows tonight at The Sugar Club.
You're coming to our neck of the woods soon, to play Love Supreme. Have you heard anything about this festival?
I know it's a kind of beautiful, jazz, soul, r'n'b festival. Some really heavy jazz. That's where I feel like my knowledge of the festival resides. I'm super excited to be a part of it.
You know Brighton at all?
I love Brighton, it's such a beautiful seaside town. We've only played one time for The Great Escape Festival. That was in 2014. It was just a half hour set. We trained in and then trained back to London to do a Maida Vale session. It was very short, but we had a good time, and we enjoyed the atmosphere.
It's a bit like Toronto, with the waterfront you have there?
Yeah, it is. It's more of a lakeside waterfront. I live quite close to it, and I go down there all the time. It's a nice peaceful walk if you go the right times of the day.
I'll be heading to Toronto in a few weeks…
Really? Wow! That's super cool. Especially in the summer time, Toronto is amazing. There's so much going on. You can sit outside in the evening, there are so many great spots to explore. Great music. The humidity can get real crazy.
How did you guys meet?
We met at Humber College, in the Jazz Programme. By a stroke of luck we all became friends. It worked out! You end up playing music with a lot of people and connecting. You have fun, practice, and jam, and just explored the surroundings and people in the programme. On that basis we met through our love of hip-hop and rap music.
Your first couple of albums came out of extended jams, is that right?
We just jam. Whatever free time we had we would just jam and play songs that we know, and try and create some kind of arrangement, and then take the recording audio and try and mix it, and release it as a mix-tape idea. There was no real intention of, you know, how many people might hear it, or what people would think. We just did it for the fun of playing music together. And then we got some attention online, got some radio play. We had no idea that would happen. It was a stroke of luck, and we are very grateful that the fun side of the project turned into something more.
Gradually you set out writing your own material…
We morphed into finding out how to write our own melodies and compositions. Crafting instrumental music based on lots of stuff we were influenced by, and exploring sounds with synthesisers, and different drum productions. Things like that.
Your last album, IV, has less of a hip–hop feel than ever before.
I would say in the energy of it, for sure. But we are always evolving. Initially we were into the blending of jazz and hip-hop, keeping the beats and energy feeling kind of chunky. Like rap-produced beats. I think we found an even stronger connection to all the albums that people would pick samples from, all different types of psyche-rock, Brazilian music, krautrock, music that spawns tonnes and tonnes of great music, and still does. You still hear so many great samples in mainstream music. Even big pop songs are sampling cool and weird things, like a cinematic flute. It's really cool. We fell in love with that, based on the fact you don't have to beef up the sounds too much. Rather, you can get a unique feeling from the acoustics on the instruments. I think that's where IV sat, where the music has this more natural feeling to it, and exploring composition, soloing, and the way we can play together.
How did you hook up with Sam T. Herring, singer with Future Islands, who performs on the album?
We did a remix for their song 'Seasons' and the connection was that if they liked it and they were going to use it, maybe we could get in the studio with Sam and try and create some original music. The connection really hit off, and he came to Toronto to work with us. We had a great time making some beautiful songs. The Future Island’s sound is almost in this 80s-driven beats, synthesised dance style. And in our world we can explore funk soul and jazz. And it was really fun to keep the palette open.
IV was named BBC 6 Music Album of the Year. That must have felt good!
That was super amazing. We were very honoured. It was something we just made for fun.
You do always seem to have a lot of fun with what you do. I like the fact you recorded some 'Holiday Classics', like 'Christmas Time Is Here Again', and did it in the BadBadNotGood style!
We did that for a session for someone we know, in his house, for his YouTube channel. Just doing some fun stuff. Just playing music. It's been the formula for us.
And the band name? How did that come about?
It was a sketch internet comedy enterprise idea that Matthew (the band's keyboardist) and his friend Connor had, and they had a YouTube channel with that name. And we started using that channel to post videos on, and we adopted the band name after that.